CHATHAM — Spanning more than the banks of the Mitchell River, the town's new drawbridge – opened with a ceremonial snip of a ribbon Monday – bridged the more daunting gulf between highway engineers and preservationists.
The new Mitchell River bridge won't be complete until the fall, but was scheduled to open to auto traffic this Wednesday. Its hybrid design features a modern steel and concrete substructure topped with timber decking and rails designed to evoke the wooden drawbridge it replaces.
“What we've done as a community is, we've taken a bridge, an older bridge, a wooden bridge connecting Mill Pond and the Mitchell River that has been a continuous part of Chatham for almost 150 years, and we kept the feel, we kept the history and prepared it for the 21st century operations and beyond,” Town Manager Jill Goldsmith told several dozen people who came out for Monday's ribbon cutting. “This bridge is something we should all be very proud of.”
The previous drawbridge represented a continuous line of wooden drawbridges that have spanned the river for more than 150 years. Thought to be the last remaining wooden drawbridge in the nation, the previous bridge was deemed eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, but bridge engineers said there was no practical way to replace it with a new wooden bridge.
The new span cost about $14 million, which was entirely funded by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation through the federal Accelerated Bridge Program. The bridge was expected to open to cars on Wednesday, but on Tuesday officials delayed the anticipated opening until Saturday to allow additional work on the guardrails and sidewalks. The bridge may also need to be closed to vehicles for a few days beginning on Monday, June 27. Town officials say the delay should not prevent the bridge from being used in Sunday's Chatham Harbor Run.
Armed with oversized scissors, former selectman Douglas Ann Bohman cut the ceremonial ribbon. Like its predecessor, the new bridge bears Bohman's name, and therein lies a tale. When she was a child growing up in Ontario, Bohman's grandfathers were the mayors of the cities of Hamilton and Burlington. In the mid 1930s, Bohman's 10-year-old brother was allowed to cut the ribbon on a new bridge connecting those cities, and five-year-old Bohman was jealous. In 2008, after Bohman had served 15 years on Chatham's board of selectmen and 12 on the finance committee, town officials put a sign reading “Dougie's Mitchell River Bridge” on the old timber structure. Bohman said she was pleased by the honor of having the sign put on the new bridge.
On Goldsmith's signal, the flag-festooned bridge lowered from its open position, allowing attendees to walk or bicycle across. The span will be open for public use throughout the summer, and boaters should notify the harbormaster's office to request bridge openings, following all the previous procedures.
Harbormaster Stuart Smith said the new span can be operated by two people and opens in less than a minute. The old bridge took three or four staff members to operate and required that a 22-foot-long “key log” be hoisted out of the bridge deck so the timber span could be lifted. The old bridge was structurally deficient – heavy vehicles were prohibited from driving on it – and didn't open completely. Sailboats passing to Mill Pond would occasionally scrape their masts against the top of the open span.
With railroad crossing-style bells, warning lights and gates, along with a barrier designed to stop southbound cars if the bridge is open, the new bridge also has a horn to signal boats. It has precisely balanced counterweights and is opened by a tiny electric motor that turns gears with a 7,000-to-one ratio. In an emergency, the bridge can be slowly opened or closed using an electric drill.
Privately, those connected with the bridge project admit that they can't remember more contentious negotiations over a public works project. But all admit that the finished product is a vast improvement over the first design proposed by the state in September 2009, a three-span concrete structure that used an overhead counterweight to raise and lower the steel center span.
“It looked like Route 95,” Chatham Historical Commission Chairman Frank Messina said. A number of residents at that first meeting pushed for a more historically sensitive bridge design, “and we got pushback from MassDOT” from the outset, Messina said. The negotiations that followed, including painstaking talks under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, involved input from a host of consulting parties, including Norm Pacun of the Friends of the Mitchell River Wooden Drawbridge, private citizens, representatives of Pease Boat Works, and a host of preservation groups.
“It went on for a long time,” Messina said. “Hopefully everybody is satisfied.”
Goldsmith acknowledged that the process was divisive, but in a way that was ultimately beneficial.
“Everyone was really passionate. They had good intentions,” she said. If the deliberations were lengthy and contentious, “look what it got us,” Goldsmith said.
A small section of wooden railing was salvaged from the previous bridge and reused on the new one. It bears marks and carvings from fishermen who cast lines over the side for generations.